Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

What are the intellectual costs of recasting Lincoln and Darwin into heroes for our troubled times?


Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. As historical coincidences go, this isn’t quite as stunning as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson departing this world within a few hours of each other in 1826. Not only were Adams and Jefferson architects of the American Revolution, but they died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Darwin and Lincoln never met or corresponded, and they distinguished themselves in very different endeavors. But Adam Gopnik uses the coincidence of their birth to make the case, in Angels and Ages, for their shared significance as “prophets of liberal civilization.” Lincoln and Darwin have incontestable claims to posterity: one saved the Union from collapse and altered the course of history; the other developed the single most important scientific idea about life on our planet. Both retain a power to fascinate: for Gopnik, Lincoln and Darwin have “never been more present.”

Gopnik depicts the two men as “snails with sublime purposes” who inched toward mighty conclusions. You know the obvious ones: the need for liberty and union to triumph over slavery and secession, the power of natural selection to explain the development of every living organism. Gopnik argues that these men shared an even deeper insight. They came to believe in “a world without a present God but with providential purposes.” Both rejected orthodox religious doctrines and embraced rationalism and science, yet they imagined a higher purpose for humanity. Gopnik has a variety of names for their vision: “enchanted secularism,” “natural universalism,” “mystical materialism.” By the end of his book, he’s become a passionate advocate for the same outlook.

What Gopnik offers in the preceding pages is accessible and nicely turned hagiography, which detaches Darwin and Lincoln from their times and draws attention away from their quirks and limitations. There’s a dash of mystery–did Lincoln’s first eulogizer, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, declare on the president’s deathbed that he belonged to the angels, or to the ages? Mostly, though, the book treads familiar ground. The best parts are about writing; from On the Origin of Species to the Gettysburg Address, Gopnik says that both men were committed to a plain-spoken style that allowed for moments of transcendence. They were proponents of a “literary eloquence” shaped by the existence and intelligence of a mass audience; both men searched for the truth–about the natural world or politics–and both recognized the need to convey their convictions to the public.

By turning Lincoln and Darwin into champions of modern liberal persuasion, Gopnik is fashioning a usable past for our troubled times. One can hear echoes of Paul Berman or Christopher Hitchens as Gopnik describes what’s at stake in venerating his heroes and why we shouldn’t take their achievements for granted. (“There is a constant struggle between the spirit of free inquiry and the spirit of fundamentalist dogma,” Gopnik observes.) The cost of this approach, in which Lincoln and Darwin are retrofitted to withstand the shocks of contemporary debates, is fidelity to detail and the bigger picture of the nineteenth century. Gopnik’s occasional prickliness toward scholarly historians–at one point he complains about the “quavers and qualifications of professional history” that would marginalize the role of Lincoln’s election in hastening Southern secession–only serves to draw attention to his overreaching.

In his rush to praise Darwin as a solitary genius, Gopnik downplays the naturalist’s extraordinary reliance on networks of information and promotion that were transforming knowledge in the Victorian world. Darwin drew upon an incredible array of correspondents in his research, and he retreated behind a well-tended group of partisans who promoted his theories in everything from the Times of London to the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. (During these meetings, at which the bishop of Oxford denounced natural selection, one of Darwin’s disciples sensationally remarked that he’d rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man of the cloth who “introduc[es] ridicule into a grave scientific discussion.”) Gopnik nonchalantly observes that “almost everyone” read Darwin, but the dissemination of Darwinian ideas relied to a great extent on the published writings of other people, many of whom had very different ideas about the role of evolution in shaping contemporary affairs.

With Lincoln, the challenge is to present the president as an enchanted secularist in spite of indelible evidence for his religious commitment. Gopnik’s platform is the Second Inaugural Address, which “feels so familiar that it is hard for us to grasp how complicated it is.” Most Americans can probably remember a bit of the speech, which Lincoln delivered a few weeks before his death: it’s the one in which he talked about God favoring neither the North nor the South completely, and made the jarring claim that the war would be justified by the sin of slavery even if it lasted for 250 years. As Gopnik wrings the address for evidence of Lincoln’s spiritual crisis, his eloquence falters and he spins a web of qualifications that sounds like a rental car agreement:

If we accept what God knew to be the evil of slavery into the world, and into America, for some mysterious purpose but with a definite lease, intending to end it, and if God made the war so horrible in order to punish those who brought the evil into the country (notwithstanding that God deliberately failed to prevent them from doing it in the first place), then does this strange equation make us believe less in a God capable of acting so bizarrely? Well, no, Lincoln says, even if that were so, “still it must be said that ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

The strained conclusion is that Lincoln, like Job, came to view history with a “mystical resignation.” Gopnik asserts that Lincoln used his Second Inaugural to tell Americans (if they were listening very carefully) that “the war is willed by fate for reasons that we cannot fully know but that must have something to do with the balancing scales of long historical time.”

The more prosaic explanation would be that Lincoln, mindful that the war was nearly over, was looking to the challenge of reunion and the need to bring white Southerners back into the fold. In March 1865 it was a lot easier to invoke a conflict lasting for 250 years than it would have been even six months earlier. This new insistence on God punishing North and South was a clear corrective to the triumphalist sermons of many Northern preachers who, emboldened by the impending collapse of Lee’s army in Virginia, aligned God with the Union cause alone. You don’t need to see Lincoln as Job to make sense of the speech: it was theologically persuasive and politically useful to insist that both sides had been humbled for their complicity in American slavery.

When Lincoln talked about Providence, he wasn’t referring to the historical process or to fate but to a God who intervened directly in history. In this, he shared the religious mindset of most mid-century Americans, and the experience of war only sharpened his convictions. If Stanton did say at Lincoln’s bedside that he belonged to the ages, committing him to posterity rather than to God, he was hardly representative: the country responded to the president’s death with a wave of eulogies that searched for God’s purpose in removing Lincoln from the scene. Some thought him another Moses, destined to die before reaching the promised land of reunion; a few suggested that he had been swept from the stage by God to make way for a politician who could tackle the very different challenges of Reconstruction. But there was no doubt among Americans that Lincoln was on the side of the angels.

Ever since Gopnik wrote an essay about 9/11 in which he compared the smell of carnage at the World Trade Center to the aroma of “smoked mozzarella,” he’s been upbraided for bourgeois self-absorption. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision in 2004 to make the street signs larger to assist bewildered out-of-towners, Gopnik raged against the intrusion upon his sightlines and the “Americanization” of New York City: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t deserve to be here.” Angels and Ages suffers from the same myopia and brittleness, especially in its pre-emptive strikes on picky historians who might be troubled by all the corner-cutting. But the book’s most startling characteristic is its headlong preachiness. The presumption here is that modern life is hard, with our resigned atheism and our simultaneous yearning for something cosmic, and that we would benefit from some enchanted guidance on how to get through the day. For all his admiration of Lincoln’s pithy prose, Gopnik’s secular sermons sound more like fortune cookies than the Second Inaugural: “The world is round and feels flat; our lives are flat and feel round.” “A life without Christmas would be a life without stars.” Or, in the book’s final lines, “Sunday feelings are as real as Monday facts.” (Are Tuesdays still with Morrie?) By the time you reach Gopnik’s conclusion, in which he makes his plea for a life of grounded transcendence, you’ll either forgive the fraying connections between Lincoln, Darwin and the modern American or find yourself estranged from Gopnik. In either case, you’ll discover that this book has more to say about modern life than about either of its subjects.

Charles Darwin’s scientific genius has rarely been questioned, and his discreet rejection of religion has recently attracted a new set of admirers. The political implications of his theorizing have been more troublesome. Social Darwinism, the application of “survival of the fittest” to human interactions, is probably a misnomer; it was Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin who focused evolution and natural selection upon society, and Spencer’s ideas had gained traction even before Origin of Species appeared in 1859. But Darwin’s assault on traditional ideas about creation and the divine shaping of life has presented opportunities to racists, eugenicists and opponents of the welfare state: if the principle of “survival of the fittest” guides humanity as well as the rest of the animal kingdom, argued even his contemporaries, then perhaps there was good reason to let the poor starve, or the nations of Europe overrun indigenous peoples in Australia or Africa.

In Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore want to choke off these uncomfortable associations and also (like Gopnik) breathe life into the images of a stern Darwin that come down to us from Victorian photography. Their solution is to argue that his scientific endeavors–the five years of traveling the globe in the 1830s, the painstaking and protracted experiments in his home, countless hours spent peering at barnacles or pigeon skeletons–were animated by a profound humanitarianism that ranged itself against slavery, the paramount evil of the age. Most books about Darwin mention his abolitionism in passing; Desmond and Moore claim to have unearthed “radical” evidence suggesting that “a hatred of slavery shaped Darwin’s views on human evolution.”

Darwin’s family had a proud antislavery record. His grandfather Josiah Wedgwood pledged the support of his famous pottery company to the cause of antislavery leaders Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in the 1780s. Darwin’s wife, a Wedgwood cousin, kept alive this commitment and became an avid reader of the radical British abolitionist Harriet Martineau (a family friend), Boston firebrand William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Darwin was strongly influenced by his encounters with nonwhite people, from his student days in Edinburgh, when he received taxidermy lessons from a freed slave called John Edmonstone, to his many excursions during the voyage of HMS Beagle. Just a few months after Darwin shipped out on the Beagle in December 1831, he glimpsed the horrors of Brazilian slavery and began to record his angry objections in his notebooks. “Every individual who has the glory of having exerted himself on the subject of slavery,” he wrote after seeing Brazil, “may rely on it [that] his labours are exerted against miseries perhaps even greater than he imagines.”

When he returned from his epic journey in 1836, Darwin began working on species and descent in the midst of a fiery debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the origin of human races. During the eighteenth century, science and religion upheld monogenesis, the belief that humanity was descended from a single point of origin. All men were created equal, or at least from the same stock, and differences in physical appearance or intellectual achievement could be attributed to climate or social opportunity. Not everyone believed this before 1830–Thomas Jefferson was famously skeptical of black mental ability–but most people did, even in the South. In the 1820s and ’30s, a new wave of scientists and hucksters challenged monogenesis, drawing upon phrenology and a zeal for promoting the permanent inferiority and superiority of certain races. The proponents of polygenesis argued that the races had been created separately: the evidence from ancient skulls, Egyptian art and other sources suggested that black people in 1000 BC looked rather like black people in the nineteenth century. (Damningly, those Egyptian pictures suggested that blacks had been slaves back then, too.)

This science found enthusiasts throughout the American South, and it made inroads in Northern states and in the British Isles before Darwin’s decisive rebuttals. Polygenesis may even have enjoyed the quiet support of the Confederacy: Desmond and Moore suggest that the particularly toxic Anthropological Society, founded in London in 1863, was an arm of Confederate diplomacy during the Civil War, looking to secure British acceptance of the new slave nation by denying the unity of mankind. Darwin’s Sacred Cause weaves his criticism of these ideas with the story of nineteenth-century abolitionism. At the same time, the harnessing of Darwin’s scientific passion to a moral crusade makes him seem less distant and forensic than we usually imagine.

It’s tempting to rest upon the same conclusion reached by Darwin’s colorful older brother, Erasmus, after reading Origin of Species: “If the facts won’t fit in, why, so much the worse for the facts.” Darwin hated slavery, and Desmond and Moore do a marvelous job of juxtaposing his careful research agenda with the reckless theorizing of the polygenists. But did Darwin actually embrace the “brotherhood of man”? And did his research or his writing have any impact on political debates about race and slavery?

The first question is hard to answer. For such a groundbreaking thinker, Darwin was extraordinarily cautious. He secretly sketched his ideas about evolution in the late 1830s, but he wrote them up only two decades later when a rival naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote an essay about natural selection that threatened to scoop his discoveries. In some ways, this meticulous approach to science bolsters the argument: perhaps Darwin really was thinking about humanity when he spent years on his barnacles and pigeons, opting for this safer scientific terrain while remaining closely attuned to debates on human origins. Desmond and Moore have taken the trouble to read Darwin’s own copies of the most infamous works of race science, and they are superbly poised to interpret the scorings and exclamations with which he filled up the margins. But Darwin said almost nothing publicly about human origins, or the thorny question of race, until he published The Descent of Man in 1871. If he believed in the 1850s that he had an understanding of race that could help the abolitionists, he kept it to himself.

A bigger problem with Darwin’s Sacred Cause is the uncertainty over the political consequences of racial unity. Although he believed that races were descended from the same origin, Darwin was fuzzier on differences among the peoples of the modern world. He was silent on the future of emancipated slaves in the United States, though in this he was following a more general reluctance on both sides of the Atlantic to explore the social consequences of emancipation. He read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Southern travelogues, antislavery bestsellers from the 1850s that endorsed the removal of slaves to a land in which they might receive, in Olmsted’s phrase, “freedom and the most complete fair play.” But there is nothing in Darwin’s Sacred Cause (or in any of Darwin’s published works) on the social experiment of Reconstruction and the project of enshrining black equality in law. Darwin looked ahead in Descent of Man to “some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, [in which] the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, Darwin didn’t rush to embrace this extermination as evidence of progress; yet he did nothing to undermine its logic, or to consider the example of a previously “savage” race in America that was now, nominally at least, an integral part of the world’s largest democracy.

Desmond and Moore triumphantly demonstrate that Darwin rejected the phony science of polygenesis. It’s harder to accept the argument that by promoting monogenesis, he was driving a stake into slavery. The problem, as Desmond and Moore quietly admit, is that slavery did not rest upon the idea that blacks were a separate species. Although this notion quickened the pulse of some slaveholders and race theorists, it threatened venerable proslavery arguments that were based on the Bible. It also undermined religion more generally: an account of creation that brushed aside Adam and Eve would produce rationales for racism only at the expense of theological crisis. The Confederacy, for all its commitment to slavery, was hardly a godless place. (When drafting a new constitution in the spring of 1861, Confederate legislators declared that the only defect of the US Constitution was its failure explicitly to acknowledge the control of Providence over human affairs.) And so De Bow’s Review, the New Orleans journal that provided a forum for polygenesis in the decade before the Civil War, warned Southerners away from their calipers and skulls in April 1861: “The man of science will see at once that it is only weakening the argument on the subject of domestic slavery, to contend for the negro a separate creation. There is no necessity for it, and to sustain it you must discard revelation.” More pointedly: “‘Thus saith the Lord’ is far more potent in convincing men of the path of duty, or of right, than all reasoning based upon supposed hypothesis.”

Desmond and Moore are more persuasive when they suggest that Darwin’s objection to slavery was based on its cruelty: there was something affective rather than intellectual about his moral outrage. How to connect humanitarianism with evolutionary biology? Darwin gave some thought to this question. Perhaps, he argued in Descent of Man, sympathy for others–necessary within savage tribes for defensive purposes–had been magnified within “civilised societies.” Tribes or nations able to translate this sympathy into patriotism and sacrifice for the common good “would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” But just a few paragraphs later, he observed that propping up the “weak members of civilised societies” with asylums, poor laws and hospitals–and especially allowing these “weak members” to reproduce–“must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Still, to “check our sympathy” for the weak would force us to damage “the noblest part of our nature.” There is something uncomfortably (but unsurprisingly) paternalist about his conclusion: “Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.” There may be a recognition of human brotherhood in this, but it isn’t a blueprint for egalitarianism.

One of the challenges in engaging Darwin is that he was, above all, an observer: his theories and writing emerged at a glacial pace and depended on a focus that was heroically patient. He was hardly cut out to be an activist, and on the rare occasions that he nudged his friends toward abolition or professed his sympathy toward the slaves, he quickly scurried back to his study: “Heaven knows why I trouble you with my speculations,” he apologized to his Harvard friend Asa Gray, after briefly pressing the abolitionist cause in a letter of 1861. “I ought to stick to orchids.”

Perhaps Lincoln and Darwin have something else in common: they brought extraordinary ideas to fruition, but they didn’t gratify their public’s desire (and ours) for a full accounting of their significance. Lincoln’s most famous speeches are the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, each a miracle of concision. He laid the groundwork for the incorporation of black people as citizens of the United States, but he said tantalizingly little about the challenges of integration and a multiracial democracy. Although Darwin lived until 1882 and kept up an active correspondence, he placed strict limits on his public appearances and pronouncements: to see Charles Darwin outside his Kent village was a rarity, and to know what he was thinking you had to wait for his next book (which was probably about facial expressions or earthworms rather than, say, the fate of British India). Even by the standards of the day these men were unobliging celebrities, and our desire to lift them out of their historical setting distracts us from the people who actually mediated their ideas for a contemporary audience.

These figures are the subject of Barry Werth’s Banquet at Delmonico’s, an important diversion from this year’s raft of anniversary books. Werth writes about the period from 1871 to 1882 and promises to chronicle “the triumph of evolution in America” after the Civil War. His main protagonist is Herbert Spencer, the British writer who applied evolutionary concepts to social analysis and became even more famous than Darwin. The book offers vivid sketches of Spencer and his American devotees, who ranged from the libidinous preacher Henry Ward Beecher to the steel baron Andrew Carnegie. These men were rarely out of the papers, they wielded political and economic power and they drove ahead with abandon. On one level, the book is a study of how ideas are understood, reworked, mangled and applied to society: Banquet at Delmonico’s is like a racier version of The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand’s worthy study of the origins of pragmatism. But by focusing on the 1870s, with Lincoln dead and Darwin mostly silent on the pressing questions of the day, Werth also offers a portrait of how ideas can be transformed if their originators vacate the public sphere.

After the Civil War, the major American misreading of Darwin–which may simply have reflected a preference for Spencer–was that evolution promised progress. Darwin was clear, in both Origin of Species and Descent of Man, that neither natural selection nor sexual selection guaranteed improvements over time. An organism might be thrown off course by accidents and contingencies–disease, climate change–that upset the natural order of things, and even slight variations in circumstances could have enormous effects. Spencer, and especially his American audience, concluded instead that “survival of the fittest” (Spencer’s phrase) promised to advance society wherever it was permitted to operate freely. Some of the best parts of Werth’s book sketch the application of this dogma to the terrible recession of 1873-78, during which the government bowed to Spencerian lobbyists and did nothing to increase the money supply or stimulate spending.

Spencer was considerably more complicated than his most famous phrase suggests: he befriended socialists, believed in legal aid and even the redistribution of land, and on his eventual visit to America in 1882 berated his hosts for working too hard (hypocritically, given his own bouts of industry). Werth doesn’t offer much in the way of interpretation or big ideas, preferring to leave his characters and stories to speak for themselves. But what comes across clearly in his book is that while blacks and Indians were further marginalized in the 1870s by the collapse of Reconstruction and conflicts over the federal reservations policy, and while poor people starved in overcrowded slums, many of the most famous men in America embraced the idea that the United States was on the side of inexorable progress. A society in retreat from social and economic intervention took refuge in evolutionary principles even as it abdicated its responsibility to the neediest. In all of this, the better angels of Darwin and Lincoln didn’t count for much.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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